Talkin Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues: Dylan’s first song of note?

By Tony Attwood

This review updated November 2019.

This is an absolutely straightforward talking blues.  If lines such as

Well, I don’t know, but I’ve been told
The streets in heaven are lined with gold
I ask you how things could get much worse
If the Russians happen to get up there first
Wowee! pretty scary!

are completely familiar to you, then you know the music.  What we have here is a different set of lyrics and what seems to be Dylan’s first recorded talking blues.

The regular story that circulates about the origin of this song (and I am certainly not going to contradict it) says that the New York Herald Tribune ran a story about a Father’s Day cruise on the Hudson River to Bear Mountain which went wrong because a lot of counterfeit tickets had been sold, resulting in overcrowding and ultimately the sinking of the boat.

Noel Stookey, who became part of Peter Paul and Mary, and who had become friends with Dylan, showed his new pal the report, and according to Mr Stookey, Dylan turned up the next day with the song all done and dusted.

To give a bit of context, as I understand things (not having been there) Bear Mountain is part of the Hudson Highlands within New York State, and overlooks the Hudson River.  On a clear day you can see Manhattan.

The story Dylan tells is not the story told in the newspaper, but is enlarged to create more comic effect – Heylin suggests that Dylan was placing himself as a “folkie Charlie Chaplin” and it was, it seems, the song that got him noticed.

The lyrics are sung by a naive young man being sold a ticket for himself and his wife and children, thinking he was going see some bears and a mountain.  He finds there are crowds of people trying to get on the boat…

Took the wife ’n’ kids down to the pier
Six thousand people there
Everybody had a ticket for the trip
“Oh well,” I said, “it’s a pretty big ship
Besides, anyway, the more the merrier”

Well, we all got on ’n’ what d’ya think
That big old boat started t’ sink
More people kept a-pilin’ on
That old ship was a-slowly goin’ down
Funny way t’ start a picnic

It’s a fairly straightforward musical satire, but for audiences who had not heard this sort of slapstick music before it clearly could have an impact, particularly I suspect, the notion that the happy group of people all going for a family day out, exhibit the traditional behaviour of people who have paid their money to have a good time, have then had a few drinks, and then get a bit miffed as things start to go awry.  It is, as Heylin implies, a classic silent movie script.

Well, I soon lost track of m’ kids ’n’ wife
So many people there I never saw in m’ life
That old ship sinkin’ down in the water
Six thousand people tryin’ t’ kill each other
Dogs a-barkin’, cats a-meowin’
Women screamin’, fists a-flyin’, babies cryin’
Cops a-comin’, me a-runnin’
Maybe we just better call off the picnic

The narrator gets punched, loses consciousness and it seems loses his clothes and possessions and survives but vows never to go out on a picnic again.

Now, I don’t care just what you do
If you wanta have a picnic, that’s up t’ you
But don’t tell me about it, I don’t wanta hear it
’Cause, see, I just lost all m’ picnic spirit
Stay in m’ kitchen, have m’ own picnic . . .
In the bathroom

The twist however comes in the last verse – the coda.  I call it that because one review of the song I read rather sweetly calls the penultimate verse “the codetta”, so I think I am ok calling this verse the coda – the final element in a piece of classical music that works everything through to its ultimate conclusions…

Now, it don’t seem to me quite so funny
What some people are gonna do f’r money
There’s a bran’ new gimmick every day
Just t’ take somebody’s money away
I think we oughta take some o’ these people
And put ’em on a boat, send ’em up to Bear Mountain . . .
For a picnic

That would have got the left wing audience in the folk clubs – let’s round up all the guys in these money making schemes and send them off down the river so they can fight each other.

Today the piece doesn’t seem that revolutionary, but if you can think of a time when the audience might well not have been familiar with the talking blues, and certainly hadn’t come across too many songs that poked fun at the scam merchants, (we are here in the days before the protest song was created) you can see why it would have got Bob’s career going.

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  1. Bear Mountain’s on the old vinyl bootlegs “Talkin Bear Mountain Pinic Massacre Blues”, side 1, no 1,
    (Trade Mark of Quality) and “Bob Dylan: Early 60’s
    Revisited”, side 2, no 8. Two slightly different versions thereof with both ‘bedroom’ and ‘bathroom’ being jokingly mentioned on one of them, and Bob correcting himself a bit on the other.

  2. The satirical tone of the song reminds one of the story of the sinking of the Mariposa Belle told by Stephen’s Leacock in “The Marine Excursions Of The Knights Of Pythias” from his Sunshine Sketches Of A Little Town.

  3. Bob seemed to be honing his Woody Guthrie impersonation. Pretty clever commentary on a small time scam.

  4. There was a paddle boat or side wheel passenger boat called “the General Slocum” that sank in the East River of New York City on June 15, 1904. Chartered by a church for a day trip picnic event. Out of 1,358 passengers, plus crew, only 321 passengers survived. There are landmark memorials in various places in the neighborhood where Bob lived. This may have been an inspiration for that song.

  5. I first heard this track on the ’90s ‘Bootleg’ release and lapped it up along with all the out takes that had not been included in the early albums. Like many a Dylan fan I had been on the roller coaster of enchantment, awe, puzzlement, disappointment, hope of revival, disillusionment and then rediscovery since 1963 when I was lent a copy of the first album in Croydon, South London, England. Learning that there had been only 5,000 copies pressed of the first album made me think how remarkable it was that I come across a copy. 1988’s Oh Mercy had nailed me after years of thinking the glory days were over. 1990’s Under the Red Sky puzzled me (as it seems to have done the producer Don Was). The decision to release the unissued archive material, especially the glorious early sixties tracks, was at least an admission by the man that the kind of songs that drew many of us to him back in those far off days was truly worth revisiting and not, as he once evasively suggested, written just to make money.

  6. Hi all,

    Here are the press articles of the real event!

    The Evening Independent:,3057226&hl=en

    The Norwalk Hour:,3889049&hl=en

    The Blade:,2178858&hl=en

    I got these tanks to a research done by Shannara, here:

    Extract of the blog:
    “So what actually happened? A picnic was organised for father’s day in Harlem, New York on Sunday the 18th of June, 1961. In order to attend the event, partakers had to buy tickets, as there was a boat ride which could take only 3000 people from the 134th Street up the Hudson River to Bear Mountain. However, things went sour when instead of the designated 3000 people arriving for the boat ride, 4000 people were awaiting the boat at 9am on Sunday to take them to Bear Mountain. This was due to the work of three teenagers; Joseph Osbourne (19), Arnold Cherry (19), and Philip Clayton (18), who had produced and sold 1000 counterfeit tickets for the event.

    Tensions rose on the pier as the boat, the Hudson Belle, was delayed from arriving. Word spread that 1000 false tickets had been sold for just $3 to some picnic goers. When the Hudson Belle arrived an hour late, 40 policemen were on hand to diffuse the already chaotic scene. They however, were useless when the gangplanks were dropped. The frantic crowds surged forwards, everybody desperate to secure their rightful place on the boat ride. 60 people were trampled or fainted. 9 were carried off to hospital, and 50 were treated at the pier. Around 2500 people managed to fight their way on board before Captain George Barry cancelled the trip and ordered everybody off in the face of the overwhelming chaos. Beer cans, bottles and insults were hurled as the angry crowds left.

    The three teenagers responsible for the counterfeit tickets and the ensuing pandemonium were arrested later that day.”

    Enjoy the discovery!

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